Archive for Tag: oral production

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Flat Bits in the Middle – Part 2: The Difference between Fluency and Complexity

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels
jonestamara@hotmail.com

In his great book, Moving Beyond the Plateau: From Intermediate to Advanced Levels in Language Learning, Jack Richards (2008) notices that another problem that contributes to the plateau that often plagues Intermediate level students lies in the difference between fluency and complexity. Again, I can really relate to this, as a French learner. For many years, I have been in such a panic to make myself understood and just communicate my thoughts and needs. I am usually okay with the simple past tense; however, if I need to do anything harder than that, I freeze up. My French linguistic system has not yet restructured to accommodate newer tenses, such as the imperfect.

Similarly with our students, they may have the passive voice down in a variety of simple tenses, but when they want to say something more complex, like “the bridge is going to be being built over the summer,” they stumble. In order to put an end to their plateau, learners need to add complexity to their output. Richards (2008) suggests that this can be accomplished in three ways: by addressing the language prior to the activity, addressing the language during the activity and addressing the language after the activity.

The Language Before the Activity

First, by address the language prior to an activity, he means pre-teaching the target language and providing students with a chance for rehearsal. Now, I am sure I am not alone when I say that I rarely begin a lesson without some sort of pre-teaching. If students are going to have a conversation about, for instance, pets, it makes sense that we teach or review pet vocabulary, right? Folse (2006) further divides this language into (1) the language in the task and (2) the language needed to complete the task. So, any animal vocabulary I would teach before my students talk about, for instance, pets would be the language in the task. However, many teachers, me included, often neglect the language needed to complete the task. For example, if the goal of the conversation were to have students rank a list of pets from most popular to least popular worldwide, the speakers would need to be comfortable with the comparative and superlative, as well as the language we use to disagree politely and to express our opinions. Without this, students will have a hard time carrying on the conversations we set for them.

Folse (2006) also backs up Richards’ (2008) claims that we need to give students ample time for rehearsal to they can move from fluency to accuracy and complexity. Folse (2006) claims that “[o]ne way to put all students – the outgoing and the reticent – on equal footing is to allow a planning phase before completing the speaking task.” This means we should give students the opportunity to write conversations before they have them. I’ve often struggled with this, as real life rarely offers conversationalists a chance for practice. However, I am convinced that if we mix opportunities for practice with occasions for spontaneous talk, it will benefit our students. In fact, one of my current students is a brilliant teenager from Korea. His vocabulary, grammar, reading and writing are fabulous. However, he is extremely reluctant to talk. I suppose if he were they chatty type, he might tell me that he is a bit of a perfectionist, and, since he can’t express himself without using simple sentences and making mistakes, he would rather not speak at all. So, I often have him write down what he wants to say and then put the paper aside and tell me. That way, he can express his thoughts more accurately and with more complexity than he would have without a planning phase.

The Language in the Activity

Second, Richards talks about addressing the language in the activity, in other words, how teachers implement the activity. For instance, do we have one student talk while all the others listen? Obviously, this does not facilitate the greatest conversation practice for the students not talking, so experts suggest groups of no more than 4 or, better yet, pairs. Folse (2006) argues that even the task we choose for them impacts their linguistic development. He claims “the “now talk to each other” pseudo-task is not acceptable.” Rather, we need to be setting specific activities rather than handing out a sheet of conversation questions. So, instead of telling my students to “talk about their pets” for 15 minutes, I should ask them to rank the most popular pets and then give them the results as reported by Google or have them compare how people treat their pets in North America with how people in their home countries treat their pets. I am not quite as anti-“talk about” as Folse, however. It seems to me that some practice on carrying on a conversation for the sake of the conversation is useful, both in the real world (I mean, I don’t usually have a task to complete when I get together with my friends for coffee) and in the conversation class. I just try to balance out the times I hand out a list of questions and give students time to talk with the times they are working together to reach a common goal.

The Language After the Activity

Third, Richards mentions addressing language use after the activity. I was a bit mystified by this. I mean, after the activity, isn’t the lesson finished? But, before the students go home, Richards suggests focusing on grammatical appropriateness via activities like having students publicly share what they discussed I their groups, as Richards (2008) contends “there is an increased capacity for self-monitoring during public performances.” Honestly, I am not sure how I feel about this suggestion. I hate, hate, hate the kind of activity where each group has to share with the class a summary of their conversation. When each group is more or less repeating what the other groups have said, students simply stop listening and tune out until it is their group’s turn to talk. No one cares about what other groups had to say on a conversation topic. However, if each group is focusing on a slightly different aspect of an issue, that makes the “sharing” part at the end more interesting.

Or, better yet, if the conversation is centered on a task, like Folse describes, it can be very interesting to hear the results each group reached. For instance, there are several great conversation tasks in Rooks’ (1988) The Non-Stop Discussion Workbook that always prompt lively discussion, and we all want to hear what each group decided at the end. For instance, in “Starting a New Civilization,” the students are told that a nuclear war has broken out and only a small island will be spared. There is a group of people waiting at an Australian airport and they can take a small plane to this island, but there are 10 people at the airport and only 6 can fit on the plane. The students have to decide which 6 will survive and continue the human race. Of course, each of the candidates has both something to offer and something that people may object to. For instance, there is a man of religion, a young female singer, a policeman with a gun, an alcoholic agricultural scientist, and so on. The conversation this activity prompts is always intense, and when groups can finally reach a consensus, they are eager to share their results and hear what other groups have decided.

In addition to a public “performance”, Richards also suggests having students listen to more advanced learners or even native speakers completing the same conversational task. The point, of course, is to have the students go beyond simply passively watching. Rather, the teacher would have to set some kind of a noticing task which would prompt the students to focus on the linguistic and communicative choices the speakers make. I think this is an interesting idea, and might work if teachers could somehow make recordings in advance of lessons. For example, when I taught pragmatic functions, like favor asking or ending a conversation, I filmed native speakers doing these things and used the conversations as an awareness raising activity in my lessons.

However, I could also have shown them at the end. Obviously, this kind of post-activity task has a number of drawbacks. First, who has the time to hunt down willing native speakers in order to record them ranking pets? Second, I am not sure students wouldn’t feel a bit depressed having to compare themselves with native speakers. Even though, logically, they know they aren’t as fluent or accurate as native speakers, I would worry that subconsciously, this activity might be a bit frustrating.

Folse, K. (2006) The Art of Teaching Speaking, University of Michigan Press.
Richards, J. (2008) Moving Beyond the Plateau: From Intermediate to Advanced Levels in Language Learning, Cambridge University Press.
Rooks, G. (1988) The Non-Stop Discussion Workbook, Heinle & Heinle Publishers.

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Flat Bits in the Middle – Part I: The Gap Between Production and Reception

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels
jonestamara@hotmail.com

I was recently reading the magazine, “Runner’s World,” and I came across an article called “Reboot, Refresh” about plateauing. The article basically points out that “every runner eventually reaches a period in their training where their progress levels off.” Apparently this plateauing is inevitable, and it is easy (at least for a slowpoke like me) to understand how a straight, climbing trajectory of improvement would be physically impossible.

As I read this, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between the plateaus that frustrate runners’ dreams of personal bests and the plateaus that we notice in our students’ English development. Just as “[o]ver the course of a running life, there are natural peaks and valleys – and flat lines in between,” I have noticed my students’ English skills grow, recede and stagnate. In my experience, this leveling off seems to happen when students are trying to move from Intermediate level to Advanced. Many of them simply give up, deciding that their language skills are sufficient for their purposes. But, some struggle on, and eventually they become advanced and then proficient users of English. So, what made the difference for those students? How do some students make it through plateaus and what can I do to help?

With those questions in mind, I did what we all do these days; I Googled “ESL plateau.” Luckily, greater minds than mine have focused on this phenomenon. Jack Richards has even written a short book on the topic, “Moving Beyond the Plateau: From Intermediate to Advanced Levels in Language Learning.” Richards helpfully breaks plateauing down into 5 common problems and suggests steps teachers can take. Although I found the entire book useful, I wanted to summarize his suggestions for those who don’t have time to read it for themselves.

The Gap between Reception and Production

Richards points out that “[l]earners may have made considerable progress in listening comprehension and reading, but still feel inadequate when it comes to speaking skills. As a French learner, I feel their pain. I can often understand, at least, the gist of what I hear and read, but I am very nervous about speaking, knowing that my grammar will inevitably be wrong and my vocabulary will be imprecise. Richards suggests that a combination of “noticing” and “focused output” can be useful to help students overcome this problem associated with plateauing. First, he recommends that teachers provide students with activities that prompt them to “notice” target structures, as this is the basis for language development. For instance, after doing a listening comprehension activity, have students return to the text for a more focused look at the language used.

Try this for 30 Days!

Helen Solorzano explained how to do this in her part of the panel discussion, “Teaching Listening: From Perception to Comprehension,” at TESOL this past year in Dallas, Texas. She suggested using a video clip from Ted Talks to encourage students to focus on what is said, how it is said and what is not said. She used a great clip where Matt Cutts, a Google bigwig, talks about trying something new for 30 days. It’s interesting, accessible for upper intermediate students, and very inspirational. First, to help students understand what is being said, she suggests identifying vocabulary and language students may find difficult by running the transcript through www.lexicaltutor.com, as well as pulling out idiomatic and other interesting language for student attention. As students listen to the speaker and read the transcript, the teacher points out these words and phrases and discusses the meanings. For instance, in the Ted Talk, Cutts says he was “stuck in a rut”. Certainly, though not essential to understanding the gist of the listening, this phrase presents a perfect opportunity for closer scrutiny.

Second, Solorzano argues that teachers need to spend time in the lesson addressing how things are said. In other words, we need to emphasize the importance of discourse markers (reformulations and hedges, for example), stance markers (phrases that show certainty, likelihood, and attitude) and interesting pronunciation patterns in the organization of a text. For instance, Cutts contrasts how time generally tends to “fly by forgotten,” when he was doing a 30 day challenge, the time was “much … more … memorable.” In other words, he pauses slightly between each word. Those pauses didn’t happen by accident. He wasn’t trying to figure out what to say next. They are there for a reason, and Solorzano would have us challenge the students to guess what message those pauses might be sending.

Third, she contends that students need to think about what is not being said. Specifically, it is helpful to discuss cultural references that may not be immediately clear to them. Other useful focal points also include pictures, gestures and other inferences. Again, they may not be necessary for overall comprehension, but to help students “notice” language, these kinds of discussions can be useful. For example, in Cutts’ talk, he refers to meeting John Hodgman at a party. I had no idea who that was until Solorzano told us he was the guy who used to play the PC in those Mac vs PC commercials a few years ago. It turns out he is a prolific writer. Anyway, even though knowing who John Hodgman is won’t immediately catapult Upper Intermediate students into becoming Advanced English users, this kind of systematic “noticing” of language will.

Focus on Output

Richards also argues that teachers need to offer opportunities for “focused output.” The way I understand it, this is a bit different from the communicative output that has become popular in language classrooms around the world years ago. Rather than just encouraging students to talk without a care for accuracy, “focused output” is supposed to enhance fluency by providing practice activities that stimulate automaticity. In other words, Advanced language users don’t think about what they want to say word by word, they think in chunks of speech. Students who have the chance to “practice” the same chunks over and over are more likely to remember them and use them automatically.

One way of providing this practice is in conversation circles. One of my former co-workers from Howard Community College used to do this activity with her students. When she first described it, I thought, “How dull.” But, now I soon learned that this kind of repetition was far from that for her students. For homework the night before, the students prepared notes about a topic. The teacher then had half the class make a circle and then the other half made a bigger circle around the inner circle so each person in the inner circle had a partner in the outer circle. They then talked about their topic for 3 minutes. After the 3 minute time period was up, the outer circle shifted to the left and each person came face to face with a new partner with whom they spoke about their topic for 2 minutes. Then, the outer circle shifted again, and the speakers had 1 minute to speak about their topic. The idea is that the students speak again and again on the same topic, giving them much needed access to automaticity.

Georgis, A. (2013) Reboot, refresh, Runner’s World, June 2013.
Richards, J. (2008) Moving Beyond the Plateau: From Intermediate to Advanced Levels in Language Learning, Cambridge University Press.
Solorzano, H. (2013) Teaching Listening: From Perception to Comprehension, paper presented at TESOL 2013, Dallas Texas.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Look at It. Listen to It. Talk about It.

Richard FirstenBy Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

There were lots of times during my years of ELT when I went nuts trying to think of clever ways to stimulate my students’ willingness to participate in conversations. What could I do to get them to use all the grammar and vocabulary and intonation that they were internalizing – I hoped – and make it all come together? Well, I found four gems to help me accomplish this goal and to inspire my own creativity. Three were visual; one was auditory. I wish I had created these terrific aids, but alas, I didn’t. What I did do, however, was use what I had found and then create more of the same on my own.

It was so long ago (back in the mid-1970’s, I believe) that I can’t even remember how I was introduced to this, but I started using a wonderful visual aid called Longman’s Progressive Picture Compositions, created by Donn Byrne, and published, of course, by Longman. There was a “pupil’s book” as they called it, which I didn’t use, but there were four large wall charts that could be placed on the chalk board sill, each chart showing one of four pictures that would tell a complete story together, as you can see here. I discovered that I could use these progressive pictures starting with lower intermediate students (in a more rudimentary way) and go all the way to the most advanced students in our program.

Read more »

Monday, October 11, 2010

Small Talk. Not So Small After All?

By Ela Newman
Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL
University of Texas at Brownsville

newjgea@aol.com

- Hi there!  How are you? Teaching anything new this semester?

- No, huh uh.  Mostly conversation courses.  But I like them.

- Using a good textbook?

- Yeah.  It’s full of good exercises.  But you know what?  I’m thinkin’ it really needs another chapter.

- Yeah? On what?

- Well, on the language that people use as, well, “time fillers” when they’re in the lunch room, at the bus stop, in the elevator, or wherever.

- I know what you mean.  Small talk.

- Yes, exactly.

- Yeah.  You may be right.  Well, good luck in those classes.

- You too. Bye!

- Bye!

How often is small talk a part of life in the classroom?  Perhaps not often enough.

The majority of the curricula I’ve followed, and most of the textbooks I’ve used in conversation classes, haven’t focused much on small talk, as such. Yes, there have been units on greetings, the weather, and family – typical topics for short, casual conversations.  Students have learned how to thank someone, how to apologize to people, how to ask for directions, and even how to inquire about someone’s plans for the weekend.  Yet these “how-to matters” tend to be presented as separate topics, often in different units.  They are not usually treated together, under a heading like “small talk.”

How often is small talk a part of life outside the classroom?  Daily.

Students must be able to cope with everyday small talk; they must be able to produce appropriate small talk.

Considering the frequency of its occurrence in daily conversations as well as its very real influence on how we are viewed as interlocutors, small talk could well deserve a regular place in ESL classrooms, classrooms which attend to communicative competence.

If we take account of its impact on reducing learners’ nervousness about spontaneous communication in L2, we also realize that “mastering” the art of small talk can lower students’ apprehension of speaking, which is crucial to their success.

Because people generally think that the language of small talk is “simple language,” and because small talk conversations can’t be considered demanding in terms of their length (lasting only a few minutes ordinarily), it’s crucial that language learners feel they can “handle” small talk.

Students shouldn’t have to say to themselves (as I have done!): I’ve been studying English for a few years but I still feel uncomfortable holding short and simple conversations.

But how can we teach small talk?

Certainly not in “topic isolation mode.”  Typical small talk “talking points” can be integrated.  We mix small talk with more serious conversation in real life; something similar can be done in the classroom.  Brief, casual conversations about the weather, complaints, health, appearance, family, apologies, compliments, plans, etc. should be held regularly, and can, with a little coaxing, involve most or all of our students over time.  Such conversations make great warm-up activities.

Sample Small Talk Warm-Up Activity

Keep a stock of cards with phrases like “Great party!”, “It was nice seeing you again”, “Let’s have lunch some time”, “You look busy”, or ‘‘I haven’t seen you for a while,” etc. Ask students, as they come in to class, to take one and then to mingle among classmates, initiating small talk with the phrase provided.

We can also incorporate activities that promote rapid, spontaneous responses also helps.  After all, small talk may be brief, but it is fast-paced!

Sample Activity for Eliciting Short, Fast-Paced Responses.

Also using cards with phrases or sentences representing a variety of topics, such as “Is this the only kind of dessert you have?”, “May I interest you in our new model of PC?”, “I’ve had a headache all week.”, “Where have you been all day?”, and “You OK?”, we can involve students in a kind of group task.  Students, in turn, draw a card and read out its phrase or sentence to another student in the group.  This should, on each occasion, prompt a brief conversation between the students (one lasting not more than 30 seconds or so).  We can sound a bell, clap our hands, or indicate in some other way, that a small talk conversation in progress should end and that a new one should begin.

I’ve found that material for lessons on small talk can often be gathered from everyday conversations I’ve heard or from those my students have heard.  If you start paying attention to such conversations, you may well get the impression, as I have, that the variety of small talk questions and answers is astonishing.

Need to run.  Take care!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Joys of Quizzing

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium
jonestamara@hotmail.com

Now, I have to clarify; the joys associated with quizzing are felt primarily by me, the teacher, and less so by my students. However, I strongly believe that, even in programs which do not require grades or testing, quizzes are of great benefit to both the teacher and the student. Moreover, I confess (but don’t tell my French teacher) that I wish I could have more opportunities to take quizzes in my own language class.

The Obvious (and Not So Obvious) Benefits

We all know that regular quizzing serves a useful purpose in our classes. Most obviously, it shows teachers what students have retained (at least in the short term) from their most recent lessons. Tests can also highlight areas in which further revision is needed. If students don’t “get” something, a test is an easy way, and in the case of large classes or reticent students, perhaps the only way, for teachers to find out. Quizzes can also give students a sense of satisfaction when they do well on a quiz because a passing grade offers tangible proof that they are advancing in their linguistic development.

However, in my time as a French student, I have also come to realize that there is another benefit to quizzes: they force students to study and (hopefully) remember what is taught. I am a fairly lazy student, in spite of my best intentions. I sometimes neglect my homework and I don’t make it to class as often as I should. However, if I knew that I would be quizzed, I believe it would motivate me to work a little bit harder. I might be lazy, but I am also somewhat competitive. Knowing that my efforts would be given a number would make me more committed to my French lessons. Based on several highly unscientific surveys I have conducted of my own students, I believe I am not alone in my desire for assessment.

We Have to Speak?

Regardless of the “popularity” of quizzing, I think it behooves teachers to shake things up as much as possible. Giving the same old gap-fills and multiple choice quizzes chapter after chapter can get dull quickly. In addition, there are some students who are born test-takers; they know just how to excel on any kind of traditional test you throw at them regardless of their language abilities. The trouble is that, although these tests are easier to grade (and who wants to lug home more papers to grade?), they don’t really reflect how we use language in real communication.

Instead of the tried (and tried and tried) traditional tests, I have been incorporating a lot of spoken quizzes into my testing repertoire. For example, I have just finished teaching a unit on the past tense with my Pre-Intermediate class. On Monday, they are all expecting to take an oral quiz. I will call them up to my desk one at a time (the rest of the class will be otherwise occupied and not paying attention) and give them 5 base verbs that I have chosen randomly from the list at the back of their book. They have 1 minute to make 5 sentences (or less if they are very clever) in the past tense. They will be given a score from 1 – 4 for each verb they use.

1 = The student tried unsuccessfully to make a sentence.
2 = The student didn’t form the past tense correctly.
3 = The student formed the past tense correctly but there was a problem with meaning or pronunciation.
4 = Perfect!

This kind of oral quizzing can also work well for a variety of other grammar structures when students interact in pairs. For instance, if students have just finished a lesson on modals for asking permission, you can have two students come up to your desk and have a conversation in which they take turns asking each other for permission based on a variety of random situations you present them with. (“You are the student and your partner is the teacher. Ask him if you can leave class early today.”) Keep in mind that the “random” part is key; if students know exactly what you will ask them, they will memorize beautiful speeches that don’t demonstrate what they can do spontaneously. This kind of quizzing is quick (if I limit my students, I can get through the entire class in under 20 minutes) and easy to grade (it is done on the spot – no papers to drag home).

I should warn you, however, that the first time you threaten to give your students a spoken quiz they will groan like they are dying. Be prepared and be strong! Ultimately, they will acknowledge that this is a much more realistic version grammar use, and many will even come to prefer it to more traditional forms of testing.

Friday, January 8, 2010

To Read or Not To Read

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

Getting students to read aloud is something I had often done as a teacher without giving it much critical thought. After all, if the students are reading, it means that I am not. And that means a reduction in teacher talk time — something we all strive for, right? However, in the past year, I have had two personal experiences that have shaped the way I approach reading aloud in my own ESL classes.

I have no idea what I just read.

About a year ago, my former supervisor convened a study group with the goal of learning more about how students learn to read. The teachers who participated were given several academic articles to read, and we met after reading each one and discussed it. One article was particularly dense and difficult to understand, even for educated native speakers. The study group was focused on one specific paragraph. In order to get a clearer grasp of the information, the group leader asked me to read it aloud. As I did, I noticed something fascinating happening. I was concentrating so hard on correctly pronouncing the words and getting the phrase groups right, that I had no idea what I had read when I was done.

If this can happen to a person reading in her own language, what happens when students read in a language that is not their first? As a result of this experience, I tried to avoid having students read aloud at all. I read everything, from the course syllabus on the first day of class, to the instructions for each activity, to the reading passages that I didn’t have them read silently. I wanted to make sure that they never read something aloud with no idea of what they were reading. However, I was often left with a tired voice and the nagging feeling that I was cheating my students of valuable practice.

Read after me.

It wasn’t until I joined my French class that I experienced the joys (or at least the benefits) of reading aloud for myself. When she gives us a text to read, my teacher, Sandy, reads it aloud or plays a recording of it first. That gives us a chance to note the pronunciation of key words, mark down the liaisons, and figure out what the text was actually about. Then, she assigns pieces of the dialogue or text for each of us to read aloud. We each read our bit and then listen as the other students read theirs. We recycle the same text over and over until every student has had a chance to read. Sandy interrupts our reading to correct our pronunciation as necessary. As a student, I feel quite comfortable with this activity. I feel well prepared for the phonological aspect of the task, and I already understand what I am reading, so I don’t feel stressed out in the slightest when I am asked to read aloud.

The consequence of this experience has been a limited return to reading aloud in my own classes. When we come across a dialogue or text in our course materials, I read it first and then the students take turns reading one or two sentences each. Sometimes I call on students randomly, and sometimes we go around the room. It gives me a chance to hear students’ pronunciation and address any issues they have, and it appears to increase their confidence as well.

“Is Reading Aloud Allowed?”

However, this evolution of my teaching practice had all been more or less subconscious until I read an article in the latest edition of English Teaching Professional by Jeremy Harmer called, “Is Reading Aloud Allowed?” In it, he debates the pros and cons of reading aloud and ultimately argues that there are many benefits to incorporating this activity into the ESL lesson plan. He makes the case for reading aloud as a diagnostic instrument (back to having students read bits of my syllabus on the first day, then) and as a tool for helping students to make connections between words and phrases and the sounds associated with them.

In addition, he also contends that reading is an actual real-life skill. As a PhD student, I use reading aloud when I have to read a dense academic text. I read it aloud to myself a couple of times and rely on the pausing to help me decipher the message of the text. In my experience, this is also a useful strategy for students who face the difficult academic texts from standardized tests. Being able to chunk the texts into manageable bits can help students to more quickly and easily understand what it is they are reading.

I am convinced that reading aloud has an important place in our classrooms. When done carefully, it can be a powerful tool and can help students hone reading and pronunciation skills they otherwise might not be able to. However, Harmer insists that the text that students read aloud has to be carefully chosen, they need to understand what it is they are reading, and they need time to listen and/or rehearse before being asked to do it in front of the class.

Harner, J. (2009) “Is Reading Aloud Allowed?” English Teaching Professional, 65.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Can Good Listeners Help Speakers?

By Ela Newman
Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL
University of Texas at Brownsville

newjgea@aol.com

Recently, I spent some time traveling on long-distance trains and buses in the company of various fellow travellers. Though these people were of all sorts of ages and lifestyles, most had one thing in common- being well equipped with “time-killers.” Colorful magazines, books, crossword puzzles, and, of course, cell phones and iPods were employed effectively by these travelers to kill time. While I was killing time thinking about how these folks were killing time, it occurred to me, as it has to others, that the best way to make traveling time pass is simply to talk a while with some “seat-neighbor.”

But what keeps such conversations going? After all, discussion of the weather, the upholstery, and one’s favorite brand of mustard can only last so long.

Engaged listening supports speakers’ oral skills

Apparently, the key to successful, interactive oral communication in a native tongue lies in the creation and maintenance of a bridge between the speaker and the audience. No matter how eloquent, knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and fluent the speaker is, a true dialogue will not last very long if the listener does not genuinely participate. Engaged listening, forming one half of that bridge, is an ingredient essential to meaningful communication.

Are bridges like this possible or beneficial in the ESL/EFL classroom?

In my experience, the manner in which an audience reacts to a speaker helps or hinders the speaker in the ESL/EFL setting. Maintaining emotional support for the speaker, for instance, seems to foster improvement in student-speakers’ oral skills.

Perhaps it would be worthwhile to incorporate more activities which focus specifically on the characteristics of good listeners and the benefits of engaged listeners to speakers.

Potential Activity: Good Listeners vs. Bad Listeners

Students work in two groups: in the first, students identify characteristics of good listeners; in the second, students identify characteristics of bad listeners. One student in each group notes down the ideas discussed.

The “good listener group” may make notes like “ keeps eye contact,” “asks questions,” “gives feedback,” “paraphrases what the speaker has said,” or “lets the speaker finish his or her sentences.”

The “bad listener group” may note ideas like “ interrupts the speaker,” “changes the subject,” “does not comment on what has been said,” “is impatient,” or “is busy doing something else.”

Once the lists of ideas have been prepared, the groups, in turn, present brief, imaginary conversations which demonstrate the characteristics students in each group have discussed. While watching these conversation-sketches, students of the other group attempt to recognize and name the characteristics being demonstrated.

This activity could encourage student input and allow students to experiment in formulating manners of interactive listening. Students can discover ways in which listening skills can influence speaking skills.

Do you think an activity like this would work? Any thoughts on how it might be improved?

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Battle of the Selves

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium
jonestamara@hotmail.com

My L1 Self

Most people who know me would tell you that I am not a shy person. In fact, I tend to be chatty and outgoing. Some might even call me loud. When I joined Weight Watchers in 2006, I didn’t hide quietly at the back of the room; I spoke out in the meetings, asking questions and sharing my personal triumphs and challenges. Even when I attended different meetings out of town (something had to get me through Christmas time in the hot-dish capital of the world – South Dakota), I usually struck up conversations with the people sitting next to me and spoke out in the meeting when I had something to add. In English, I would definitely fall into the category of sociable live wire.

My L2 Self

Fast forward to 2009. I have been living in Belgium for almost a year now. Faced with chocolate, cheese, and the best french fries on earth, I have kept up regular attendance at the local Weight Watchers meetings. They are conducted entirely in French, and I enjoy the challenge. What I find most interesting, though, is the complete personality change that I undergo when I enter the meeting hall. I become shy and quiet. I usually find a place at the back, and I don’t make eye contact with anyone.

Sometimes, the leader, Jacqueline, tries to include me by prompting me to share a meal idea or weight loss strategy. At these moments, I tend to sweat, panic, and stammer through a convoluted response. I get agitated for a number of reasons: I might not be entirely sure I understand the question, I don’t want the other members to judge me by my grammar mistakes, and I don’t want them to think that I am just one of those people who can’t be bothered to learn their language.

Speaking out in my Belgian Weight Watchers meetings is a horror equivalent to oral surgery; sometimes it’s necessary, but I’d really rather not.

The Importance of Accuracy

I have spent years telling my students to not worry about what people think and to just get their ideas out there. However, this is certainly not advice I, myself, can easily follow. One on one, I am fine. When I was younger, I managed to learn Russian fluently just by trial and error. But, when speaking publicly in another language, I feel very vulnerable. I want to make the right grammatical choices because I want to be both understood and accurate. I want people to think about my ideas and not my verb tense errors.

A Solution?

I know many of my students feel the same way, but there is no magic solution that I am aware of. (If you know of one, post a response to this blog immediately!) Many of the things we have already talked about in this blog help: drilling, error correction, scripting. Having students give speeches in class is another way of preparing them for the unsympathetic ears of the native speaking audience. I am also a huge fan of the “dull” grammar book work that eventually leads to automaticity. My French teacher does all of this, and yet, I still go beet red and start to sweat when Jacqueline turns my way.

In the end, maybe only time will transform me from an L2 introvert to an L2 extrovert. However, my experience has certainly made me more sympathetic to my students’ reticence. I won’t flippantly tell my classes to “just get out there and speak English” again!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Breaking the Silence: Activities Aimed at Encouraging Students’ Oral Participation

By Ela Newman
Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL
University of Texas at Brownsville

newjgea@aol.com

A group discussion begins. The clock ticks and tocks but there is not a second of silence. In fact, all the participants are so active that the teacher is forced to set a limit on how much each student can contribute to the conversation. When asked to summarize the group’s deliberations, the students compete for the role of speaker. Even when the class is over, while packing their books (and checking their latest text messages), the students continue the discussion.

Am I dreaming? Probably. But some approximation of this scenario is possible, at least some of the time.

We know that an ordinary oral task can evolve into a dynamic conversation if students work in an environment where obstacles hampering participation–such as shyness, feelings of inadequacy, or worry about embarrassment–are overcome by peer support, a non-punitive learning environment, and even motivation.

But what about the actual activities we use? Do certain oral tasks naturally evoke an animated response?

In my experience, students are more often orally active when:

1. They know that the success of a group activity requires a contribution from every student.

Example activity: Groups are assigned to share, compare, and then present information about each member’s study habits.

2. They are asked to contribute knowledge or expertise acquired outside the ESL classroom.

Example activity: Groups are assigned to describe the steps involved in ordering a CD, DVD, book, article of clothing, etc. from an online store.

3. They are surprised or shocked by a piece of news, preferably fake news.

Example activity: Before class begins, two students are told a piece of “strange” news and are asked to report that they have heard about the news when the teacher mentions it during a class discussion. Even doubting students and shy students have been known to bring themselves into the conversation once the two ‘plants’ have spoken up.

The news might be that there is a new law against driving while listening to metal rock and roll (passed because of research into brainwave conflicts associated with doing the two activities at once) or that scientists have discovered a genetic defect in collies which is causing an increasing number of them to become rabid spontaneously. (Sorry Lassie!) The list of possible fake news items is endless, but the best seem to be those which are surprising yet also somehow believable.

4. They can use vocabulary items which are familiar and key to the task.

Example activity: Groups are assigned to consider a few job applications–which contain a variety of formal, characteristic vocabulary items–in order to decide whom to hire as a language tutor.

5. They have limited time to complete the task.

Example activity: Students play a high-speed version of the well-known game “Twenty Questions”–a version called “Twenty Seconds.” Knowing that everyone must think and speak quickly in the game, and that mistakes will inevitably be made by a number of the participants, students ordinarily feel less inhibited than usual when playing this question- answer game.

Once a supportive and cooperative learning environment is established, we can turn our minds to activities. It is my experience that the choices of oral tasks often determine whether or not students genuinely engage in discussions.

Do you use any special tasks to foster animated discussions in your ESL classroom?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Striving for Fluency: Crafty Tricks, Inevitable Pitfalls, and Productive Approach

By Ela Newman
Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL
University of Texas at Brownsville

newjgea@aol.com
As a beginning language learner, I remember knowing many classmates who seemed able to talk indefinitely in English without pausing. If they paused, it was not because they had to, but to extend some measure of courtesy to other students. After all, it was only fair to let everyone contribute to our conversations.

But how many of us did, in fact, speak up regularly, without embarrassment, with pure abandon, pushed by the heavy thought that we would never be fluent unless we practiced? Not too many. We were shy by nature and rather inhibited by what we thought were flawless performances of our fluent classmates. But, still determined to speak up, many of us developed crafty tricks in order to sound more fluent and more skilled. How many of these do you recognize?

  • Learn a word which sounds quite sophisticated and “plug it in” whenever possible (I had a friend whose sentences always included the word appreciate. He seemed to be grateful for lots of things.)
  • Learn a few longer phrases, even sentences, and make them fit whatever topic is being discussed
  • Use abbreviations, clipped forms, and contractions (Cause was quite popular at the time)
  • Instead of boring the listener with an unending chain of “umm” and “ahh,” use phrases such as “Now, let’s see,” or “How can I put it into words?”

A Pile of Pitfalls

While the last trick on the list seemed to work quite well, the others turned out to be nothing but pitfalls, making us more nervous and, in fact, less fluent. Finding ways to make the “big” word or “the perfect sentence” fit the context of the conversation was not just exhausting, but certainly unnatural. Intertwining piles of abbreviations and contractions with long pauses didn’t seem to serve any communicative purpose, except for irritating the listener, perhaps. “It’s … ‘cause…umm… they’ve… ahh… well, …no…. they’d… umm…” would test any listener’s patience.

Most of those tricks did not work well. The idea of creating those, however, testified to our serious, maybe obsessive, interest in becoming truly fluent. We wanted to reduce our number of pauses and repetitions, create undisturbed runs of words, and use connected speech naturally.

The Real Secret of Becoming Fluent

Interestingly, what did help many of us reach higher levels of fluency was exposure to tasks focused on accuracy. Because of our concern with the quality of language we produced and, consequently, with the effectiveness of our communication skills, some emphasis on accuracy allowed us to develop greater fluency. Knowing that we were using appropriate structures and words, we were much more willing to speak up, explore, and experiment with the language.

And so, in our case, accuracy seems to have been not just any component of fluency, but its foundation. Focusing on communication skills is crucial in language learning; being able to use language appropriately is also a part of meaningful and successful communication for both native and non-native speakers.

I’ll end by encouraging you to read an article by Fangyuan Yuan and Rod Ellis “The Effects of Pre-Task Planning and On-Line Planning on Fluency, Complexity and Accuracy in L2 Monologic Oral Production.”

Their findings suggest that a balance between fluency and accuracy can be achieved when students are given time, even brief moments, to conceptualize, plan, articulate, and monitor their oral performance. What I found particularly interesting about this study was the exercise the authors used to research the effects of planning on fluency and accuracy in learners’ oral performance. I think that the task, which involved participants in narrating a story, would work very well as an activity promoting both fluency and accuracy in many EFL/ESL classrooms.

Do you know of any useful strategies for teaching fluency and accuracy in tandem?